Archive for December, 2012

TT: What’s Horrible about Horror?

December 27, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back for a wander through the fields of poetry…  Then come back and join me and Alan as we take a look at the final member of the “Big Three” of speculative fiction: Horror!

Not Horrible Horror

Not Horrible Horror

JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve taken a general look at SF and Fantasy, two of the Big Three of Speculative Fiction.  The sub-section that always puzzles me when I try to define it is “Horror.”    From reading your “wot I red” column, I know you like at least some horror.  Do you have a definition?

ALAN: Yes, I think so. Some supernatural entity (a ghost or a vampire, for example) does something which terrifies a group of people and puts them in fear of their lives. The story may or may not end happily. In a sense, horror can be thought of as a subset of fantasy. Perhaps it is fantasy in a setting where fantasy would not normally be found (contemporary society, for example). But it always has to have overtones of terror.

JANE: Hmm… If by “supernatural” you mean “outside of normal parameters,” I guess I can agree.  However, I’m not certain that Horror is always a subset of Fantasy.

I’ve heard many people say that the movie Alien is horror set in outer space while the sequel Aliens is science fiction.

ALAN: I’ve heard that opinion expressed as well, but I’ve never understood it – I thought both of them were actually rather good science fiction. Perhaps the “horror” in Alien comes from the chest burster scene, which is undeniably horrific in the sense that you jump out of your seat in shock and go “YUCK!” when you see it. But from the alien creature’s point of view, it’s just following its biological imperatives, and isn’t really doing anything wrong at all. To me that makes the film science fiction. It’s a first contact story, albeit a rather gory one, with very well realised (though quite scary) aliens. I’ve never really considered “horror” to mean “gross out the audience.” But perhaps some people do.

JANE: Perhaps.  I’ll admit, I’ve never seen Alien.  Jim advises me not to on the grounds of how I tend to react to scary movies.   I saw Aliens with some friends – all of whom had seen it before.  After a while, I realized they were watching me, not the film.  Apparently, I jump a lot.

Another example of non-fantasy horror would be George R.R. Martin’s story “Sandkings.”  There’s nothing supernatural in it, but it’s definitely horror…  A terrifying, creepy piece.

ALAN: I don’t remember that one. I know I’ve read it, but the details have vanished from my mind. It must be time for me to read it again. I’ll add it to my list…

JANE: Oh!  “Sandkings” is incredibly creepy.

I decided to see if Ellen Datlow, the renowned editor of numerous anthologies of horror,  had anything to add to our definitions.  You’ll see she agrees with both of us on at least a few points!  Here’s what she sent:

“To me, horror is less a distinct genre than a tone that develops from the approach writers take to their material.  It’s the darkness, always the darkness that prevails.  Even when the protagonist survives, the darkness is never left entirely behind.  Things are not ‘ok’ in the world (which is why most of what is today called ‘urban fantasy’ is not horror).

“There are several different subsets of horror: supernatural horror, psychological horror, SF horror (Alien, The Fly – story and movie adaptations – The Thing are good examples of this).”

ALAN: Stephen King is often thought of as the archetypal author of horror, but actually I think he’s written very little of it. It just so happens that he made his initial reputation with the genre. Salem’s Lot (vampires terrorise a small town) is probably his very best pure horror novel, with It (a supernatural killer clown terrorises a small town) running it a close second. Christine (a haunted car)  is also a special favourite of mine, though others don’t seem to agree with me. Most of King’s work is actually fairly straightforward science fiction and/or fantasy. But the reviewers stuck the horror label on him very early in his career and he’s never been able to shake it off. Not that it’s done his career any harm at all…

JANE: I haven’t read a lot of Stephen King because he does his job very well – he scares me, makes me uneasy, in general evokes that “darkness” to perfection.  I know many people don’t consider his novel The Shining horror, but let me tell you,  to a writer, that level of writer’s block would be a truly horrific situation.  “All work and no play…”

ALAN: Actually I always thought of The Shining as a good example of what we were discussing last time – something that combines elements of different genres and yet remains uniquely its own self because it doesn’t slot neatly into a category. It’s got telepathy (SF, sort of), it’s got ghosts (fantasy/supernatural), and, of course, it’s got the dark terror that belongs to the horror genre.

JANE: Good point!

If I do read Horror, I like those stories that expand on folklore or mythology in an intelligent fashion.  I’m also a sucker for a good “haunted house” tale or for when old gods come calling with an agenda of all their own.

I also like horror where someone manages to evolve a mythology of their own that works well.  H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction may be ponderous and wordy, but his stories still hold me.   He had the gift of making me believe that his version of reality – creepy as it is – is valid.

ALAN: Charles Stross has written a series of semi-comic SF/Horror novels about “The Laundry”, a British secret service agency which deals with occult threats of a specifically Lovecraftian nature. Computer technology and mathematical equations can call up horrors from other dimensions. Lovecraft has a lot to answer for…

JANE: That sounds like fun.  I used to play the Call of Cthulu role playing games because it was fun to solve the problems.  As I mentioned elsewhere, I actually sold a couple of gaming articles based in this milieu.

Looking at other types of horror, oddly enough, I don’t find “slasher” type horror horrific unless I care about the characters.  I actually get bored.

ALAN: I really enjoy a nice bit of blood and guts, grue and gore – but I suspect that’s because I never get so caught up in it that I lose track of the fact that’s it’s just a story, it’s not real. (I’ve seen real injuries and they nauseate me just as much as they nauseate everyone – but a film is just a film and I can easily maintain an intellectual distance from the subject matter).

JANE: Ah, to me, story can seem all too real…  For that reason, psychological horror can get me every time.  Two stories that come to mind for me are Daniel Abraham’s “Flat Diane” and D. Lynn Smith’s “A Building Desire.”  “A Building Desire” is told from the point of view a hammer that is being used in a very interesting fashion.

Of course, in that story, I’ve been told that I may have been rooting for the wrong person…

ALAN: I’m not familiar with these writers – can you be a little more precise about what you mean by  “psychological horror”?

JANE: Well, to reference back to your original definition, this is horror where – even if there is a supernatural element – the real monsters are human monsters.  Stories where the “dark” comes from the human soul, and the reader is all too aware “that could be me” or at least “that’s all too possible.”

ALAN: Ah! I see. I’m going to be a little old-fashioned here. I’d put writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe into that category. Possibly even Dickens in his darker moments. All of them can give me the shudders because their human monsters are so well realised.

JANE: I agree with you absolutely.  Poe’s “Black Cat” is psychological horror.  “The Telltale Heart…”  Geez, I could just go listing titles for both authors.  I think, actually, there’s a psychological horror in all of the best Horror fiction – many of the subcategories come from what else gets put in the mix.

Next time…  Heh…  Let’s build suspense and leave next time for, well, next time!

Pausing for Poetry

December 26, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately.

Sitting on my desk

Sitting on my desk

There was a time in my life when poetry had a daily place.  I was an undergraduate English major, remember, and then continued studying English literature through a PhD.  After that, I taught English at the college level.  That involved reading a lot of poetry, too.

I never really stopped reading poetry, but the automatic inclusion of poetry into my daily routine began to be, well, less automatic.  There were periods that the desire to read poetry rose in intensity.  There was the time I read Jim all the selections from T.S. Eliot’s Book of  Practical Cats, one an evening.  That led me to re-reading a lot of Eliot’s more “serious” verse and some of his verse drama.

Then Jim got into “Cowboy Poetry” – a rather specialized form of verse.  One of the qualifications to be a “genuine” cowboy poet is to have worked as a cowboy.  Jim’s co-worker Jeff Boyer is an official cowboy poet, some compensation for the aches and pains he has as a heritage of those rough days in the saddle.   (I’m not sure what compensation he gets for the aches and pains acquired as an archeologist.)   Jim started by reading Jeff’s offerings, then went on to other writers of the form.  Cowboy poetry isn’t bad, especially if you like rhyming verse (we both do) that tells a story or joke.

Another time, I was asked to write a story for the Irish-themed anthology Emerald Magic, edited by Andrew M. Greeley.  I decided to write a story featuring the poet W.B. Yeats and the lady he never stopped loving, Maud Gonne.  “The Lady in Grey” didn’t feature any poetry, as such, but it gave me an excuse to re-read a lot of Yeats’ work.  Then, as a means of keeping Yeats’ language and cadence in my mind while I wrote, I listened over and over to a recording titled Songs and Music from the Cuchulain Cycle that had been given to me many years ago.  Grand stuff.  I think Yeats actually would have approved of the Celtic rock beat to which the “The Harlot and the Beggar Man” is set at the end.  It’s stirring, caustic stuff that fits his words perfectly.

So here I am, reading poetry again.  I started as research, but this time the bug bit deep.  I’ve kept a tattered copy of a poetry anthology on my desk.  A couple times a day I’ve been opening it at random.  Now, this anthology purports to contain “Immortal Poems of the English Language,” so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I remain astonished how many of the pieces I read contain lines that remain in daily use – even by people who would swear they know nothing about poetry.

Poetry is a good reminder of how a few well-chosen words can say more than paragraphs.   In fact, one definition of poetry I came across recently said that the art of writing poetry could be defined as finding the least possible number of words needed to get across an idea.  Not bad…

Do any of you read poetry?  Write poetry?  Recite poetry?

Maybe a good New Year’s Resolution (which I don’t make, of course) would be to give poetry a try…  Maybe you’ll rediscover an old friend.  Maybe you’ll stretch your wings and fly with a new.

TT: Indistinguishable?

December 20, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and discover how Christmas trees can show up in the most unexpected places.  Then come back and join in as Alan and I delve into the mysteries of Clarke’s Axiom.

Levitation? Anti-Grav?

Levitation? Anti-Grav?

JANE: Last time, Alan, you introduced Clarke’s Axiom about magic being indistinguishable from advanced technology.  In theory, I don’t disagree with Clarke at all.  You can run through the list of comparable “special effects” easily enough: levitation vs. anti-gravity, transporter vs. teleportation, lightning spell vs. laser, magic wand vs. ray-gun, robots vs. golems.

There was a great cartoon by, I believe, Phil Foglio, in Dragon Magazine many, many years ago, that played on the same point.  Two tough-looking guys are in a bar, arguing.  One is dressed “futuristic,” the other in rough armor.  They go back and forth, back and forth: “Mutants!”  “Orcs!”  “Mutants!”  “Orcs!”  Finally, in frustration, the bartender says, “For heaven’s sake, you’re looking at yourselves in the mirror!”

ALAN: And reflecting on what they saw there?

JANE: Exactly!  So, I don’t disagree with Clarke in theory.  In practice, though, I can get a bit cranky about it.  This is what I call the “furniture” definition of the genres.  Technically, it’s correct, but intrinsically, it’s just lazy writing.  (Not that Clarke was lazy.  However, I have heard many writers quote Clarke to excuse themselves when they are being lazy.)

If the terms a writer uses for something are the only things that decide the label put on a book’s spine, then I don’t think the world building has a lot of depth.  There should be a reason for magic –  whether alien gods, bleed-through from another universe, or some other interesting idea.  There should also be some thought put into how magic works.  That “why” doesn’t need to be spelled out – unless that’s the point of the story – but the reader should have a sense that it’s there.

Jack Chalker did a series of novels – the “Dancing Gods” books, I think –  where the premise was that God had let the angels design a universe.  Since the angels were not perfect beings, they made mistakes.  They then wrote massive volumes of rules to fill in the gaps.  Magic involved  understanding those rules and exploiting them.

I thought it was a clever idea, although I will admit that I did not remain enchanted with the series.

ALAN: Magic can be both serious and/or silly, of course. Jack Vance (one of my very favourite writers) knew this and somehow managed to combine the two to great effect. In his Dying Earth stories the wizards cast complicated spells which have portentous names  such as The Spell of Forlorn Encystment which, when cast on a hapless subject, constricts the subject in a pore some 45 miles below the surface of the earth. (That’s pretty much a direct quote, I think). But having cast the spell, the wizard will not be able to use it again until he has re-learned it. Casting the spell erases it from his mind. I always thought this was a really neat side effect. I gather the device was “stolen” by the Dungeons and Dragons people. I’m not sure if they ever acknowledged the source of their inspiration.

JANE: They certainly didn’t in the D&D source books I remember using back in college.  However, I haven’t played D&D or its variants in closing on twenty years, so maybe they’ve given Vance his bow.

ALAN:  My favourite example of very silly magic is actually satirical. Terry Pratchett, that wickedly funny man, wrote a novel (I think it was The Last Continent) in which Rincewind the Wizard gains the magical ability to always find food in the desert. As a result of this gift, he keeps finding cream cakes underneath rocks…

JANE: Yep.  That’s The Last Continent.  Small aside.  What’s a cream cake anyhow?

ALAN: It’s a cake (usually some sort of a sponge cake) with lots and lots of whipped cream as a filling in the middle  and/or spread on the top and sometimes spread all over the sides as well. You can actually feel your arteries hardening as you eat it. Yum!

JANE: Sounds wonderful.  I wish I had one to go with my morning coffee right now.

Returning to our subject, whatever refinements we give it, my definition of Fantasy is one that publishers would use.   Put in the least bit of magic and the book is Fantasy.  If you blend tech and magic – say the flying cars in Harry Potter – it’s still Fantasy.

Roger Zelazny used to drive his publishers nuts.  They even tried to invent a “science fantasy” category for some of his more convoluted works, but that just made the booksellers not know where to put his books, so they gave up.

ALAN: That’s what makes it so hard to pin these things down. It’s easy when you write “extruded fantasy product” as someone once dubbed the largely formulaic fantasy trilogies that dominate today’s bookshelves. But out near the edges, where all the really interesting stories are being written, it’s difficult to be precise. And Roger was particularly good at combining categories in new ways. I’m thinking of the Amber books here – they didn’t fit neatly anywhere! Are they Science Fiction or Fantasy? The only honest answer to that question is “Yes, they are!”

JANE: The Chronicles of Amber, Changling and Madwand, Jack of Shadows, even that SF classic Lord of Light all are great examples of where Roger blended magic and technology without ever losing the “feel” that the two things were distinct from each other.

Eventually, I’d like to chat with you about  some of the sub-genres of both SF and F but, before that, we should take a look at an important final element.

I’ll leave what that element is for next time.

Accidental Christmas Tree

December 19, 2012

Last week I mentioned that because of our rambunctious kitten, Persephone, Jim and I weren’t planning on having a Christmas tree.  Turns out we ended up with one after all.  The story begins in the spring of 1996.

Oh, Christmas Tree!

Oh, Christmas Tree!

When I moved into this house a few weeks before Christmas 1995, the yard was a wasteland.  On the east side there were two rose bushes, both dying.  On the west side only a single scraggly juniper shrub tucked back in the far south corner survived.  I say “survived” rather than “was growing” very deliberately.  This juniper was so small and bent that we assumed it was one of the miniature, ground-hugging varieties.

In the Spring, Jim took a pruning saw to the juniper and removed about ninety percent.  We didn’t dig out the stump then because we had a lot to do elsewhere.  Anyhow, we figured the job would be easier if we waited until the plant finished dying.  A strange thing happened, though.  Without any further care, the juniper kept living.  Given the general condition of our yard, we left it alone and worked on parts of the yard closer to the house.

Occasionally, we’d toss a little mulch back there.  We planted a water-hardy chaste bush behind the juniper, figuring that it could take over when the juniper died.  The juniper didn’t die, though.  Maybe the little bit of water we gave the chaste bush had something to do with the juniper’s survival, but I firmly believe that the real reason was that plant was just determined to keep going.

As the years went by, the little juniper began to fill out.  Back-dropped by the chaste bush, it gave us some silvery green in the far end of the yard.  However, I didn’t realize just how big the juniper had become until just a few days ago.  I was looking out our bedroom window, enjoying the antics of the birds as they hopped on the ice to drink from our little pond.   The exodus of a bunch of juncos toward the back of the yard drew my attention to the corner.

To my astonishment, a Christmas tree stood there.  It was a bit oddly shaped – more as if one of Tolkien’s Ents decided to masquerade as a Christmas tree, rather than the classic living room ornament –  but it was green, at least eight feet tall, and had the right shape: high in the middle, tapering down along the edges.

“Jim!  The juniper’s turned into a Christmas tree!”

Jim wandered over.  “You’re right.  We should get some ornaments.”

And we did.  We purchased  a container of weather-hardy ornaments, bright in silver, gold, red, and green.   There were enough to decorate the desert willow outside the office window, too.  The long seed pods provide a sort of natural tinsel.

It’s very festive.  And it’s very nice to have a Christmas tree (or two)  after all…

TT: So, What’s SF? What’s Fantasy?

December 13, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  It’s time to take a look at seasonal rituals in fact and fiction.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture more deeply into the jungle of categorization.

The First Division

The First Division

JANE: Last time we were talking about the categories of in speculative fiction.  I was noting that I’m having a bit of trouble categorizing my next novel for Tor because, although it’s SF, I think it has elements a fantasy reader would enjoy as well and I don’t want to chase them away.

ALAN: That’s why trying to categorise these things is so subjective.  (I think that’s really what Damon Knight was trying to say in the quote I used last time). So let’s start at the top. How would you define science fiction and fantasy?

JANE: Basically, for me, Science Fiction extrapolates from the universe as we know it, although those extrapolations can get pretty extreme, as in Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany or Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.

ALAN: I can’t argue with that, though I would add the caveat that, for me at least, I don’t much care how likely or even how accurate these extrapolations are. Indeed, the more unlikely the setting, the more interesting the story is likely to be.

A central concept in a couple of Peter F. Hamilton’s door-stopping novels (Pandora’s Star and its sequel Judas Unchained) is that the protagonists get on a train to travel to the stars. I don’t normally like Peter Hamilton’s books very much (they have far too many pages in them for my taste), but this central conceit, which was perfectly logical in context, tickled my fancy so much that I really quite enjoyed the story.

JANE: A train…  Interesting.  I think I’ll put one of these on my list.

Going back to my own dilemma, to me, the “Artemis Awakening” books are SF, not Fantasy, because I imagine them in a far, far distant future, but one in which Earth existed and is part of the distant history – rather like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s concept of Darkover or Anne McCaffery with Pern or Clifford Simak with just about anything.

ALAN: Both Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock have had a lot of fun with that kind of thing, though they both set their stories firmly on a very, very far future Earth: Vance with his stories of the Dying Earth and Moorcock with his Dancers at the End of Time sequence. I’m quite looking forward to seeing that idea extrapolated into the universe at large where, I suspect, it more properly belongs. So what makes something Fantasy?

JANE: Fantasy contains magic.  The magic can be overt, with carefully designed rules and laws, like I did with the “Breaking the Wall” books  or more mystic and vague like my Child of a Rainless Year.   Or magic can simply be a part of how the universe works, even if people are still figuring out how and why it works, as in the Firekeeper books.

Whatever the case, magic is there, really there, or the book is not Fantasy.

ALAN: Let me quote Arthur C. Clarke at you: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (I’m also very fond of the converse: Any technology which is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced). Under this ruling, fantasy as you define it, doesn’t exist. It is just science fiction with sufficiently advanced technology. OK – I’m playing devil’s advocate here and I’m not really serious, but it does illustrate how slippery these things are.

JANE: I agree on the slippery.  However, I will stress that for a publisher, if you put in the least bit of magic, the book becomes Fantasy not SF.

As for Clarke’s Axiom, that’s a point that I’d like to go into next time because for me it’s a pretty complex issue – and one I can get really passionate about.   That okay?

ALAN: Fine by me. See you on the other side.

TT: Do You Decorate?

December 12, 2012

Do you decorate for the holidays?

Jingles and his Sleigh

Jingles and his Sleigh

Jim and I do, pretty extensively.  This year, because we have a nine month-old kitten who thinks anything unattached is meant for her to knock over, we are skipping a tree, even though most of our ornaments are unbreakable.  (My starting to put up my own tree and getting my first cat coincided within a few months.)  Still, I bet Persephone could discover ways to break them.  She has a gift.

If you’re curious about some of Jim and my holiday traditions, you might enjoy going back to my Wandering for 12-22-10.  This year, we’re doing many of the same things.  I don’t have a new Christmas stocking to make, so instead I’m crafting handmade ornaments for some of the beloved people in my life.

Thinking about how much these seasonal rituals mean to me started me thinking about how few SF and Fantasy books feature seasonal celebrations.  By this I don’t mean books set at Christmas time.  (We had a great discussion of these last year: see WW 12-21-11.)  I mean books where seasonal celebrations are featured.

There are some, of course.  Joan Vinge’s Winter Queen and Summer Queen (science fiction, by the way, rather than fantasy, as the titles and cover art might lead you to expect) use the concept of seasonal transitions to great effect.  I suppose Biblo’s Birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring could be considered a sort of seasonal celebration, especially since the people of Hobbiton have come to expect a party every year.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to weave in these elements without being accused of slowing down the story.  I try where I can – there are passing references to some holidays in the Firekeeper books.  Lani, the young child who is a character in Thirteen Orphans and the other books in the “Breaking the Wall” books, created an excuse to give birthday parties at least a passing mention.  Birthdays are also important in Fire Season, my recent collaboration with David Weber.

Yet, sadly, I don’t get to work in these sort of celebrations as often as I would like. I do feel the loss.  I know when my character’s birthdays are, but the reader rarely gets to find that out.

Humans like commemorations.  They like seasonal repetition.  They like odd quirks of date that somehow seem significant.

Shall I point out that today is 12-12-12?  Why not?  I bet I’m not the only one doing it!

The current fuss over the impending Mayan “end of the world” (actually merely an end of a calender cycle), shows this very human tendency again.

But, unless the seasonal celebration is the reason for the book, these rarely get included.  Yet preparation for those celebrations – whether a religious or  semi-religious feast, or a purely personal one – take up a lot of time and energy in our daily lives.   I believe they probably have done so, going all the way back to when solemn Babylonian priests used the stars to predict the best time to plant or Egyptians awaited the innundation of the Nile.

A world seems a little thin without seasonal celebrations, birthday parties, anniversaries, and other such excuses to mark the changing of the year or the evolution of a life.

My world is full of them.  My siblings and I still commemorate each others birthdays (and those of our mom and the various kids).  Jim and I have joked we have our own seasons: “the season when Jane leaves shoes all over the house,” “winds,” “gardening season,” “open windows,” and, of course, the holiday season.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d better wander off and get a couple sticks of butter out of the freezer so I can start making cookies.  We always give cookies to our neighbors and a few special friends.  Christmas time wouldn’t seem “right” if we didn’t!

May your rituals be bright!

TT: It’s All Categorical

December 6, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one for a look at why getting through writing the middle of a book – even if you outlined – isn’t as easy as you’d imagine.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we delve more deeply into the question of genre categories.

A Delightfully Different Novel

A Delightfully Different Novel

JANE: Last time, Alan, we were talking about how many of the sub-genres for SF and Fantasy seem to exist mostly to make marketing easier for bookstores.

First, I’d like to make clear that I really dislike when someone (and usually this is a reviewer) faults a book for not falling neatly into a category.  I mean, since when is the purpose of a novel to fit into a neat slot?

ALAN: I quite agree. As a reviewer, I would never do that. But I tend not to think in categories anyway.

JANE: I don’t think in categories either, especially when creating.   However, I do think that it’s useful to know the basic differences in terms.

ALAN: Why? Damon Knight said that speculative fiction is what we are pointing at when we say “that’s speculative fiction.” That’s not an exact quote, but it’s my favourite phrasing. When I was a young child, just in the process of getting addicted, I made no conscious genre distinctions. But I always knew it when I saw it. These days, as both a reader and a reviewer, I try to approach a book on its own merits rather than try to shoe-horn it into a category

JANE: As an author and as a reader, I agree with that approach.  However, as someone who works in the business, I’ve also found that knowing what the terms mean can be pretty useful, especially when trying to describe what it is I’ve written to a potential publisher or reader.

ALAN: Why?  Isn’t it enough to talk about the book itself?

JANE: Not always.  Here’s an example.  My friend Sally Gwylan has self-published her novel, A Wind Out of Canann (the first novel in a series), as both an e-book and a print-on-demand.  A section from the book was originally published in Asimov’s Magazine as “In the Icehouse.”

Because Sally is self-publishing, she needs to do all her own marketing.  That means sending the book out to potential reviewers.  To do that effectively, she needs to know what a site means when it says something like “We review Science Fiction, but not Fantasy.”  Or, “We review only Fantasy, not any form of SF.”

ALAN: That’s silly! As both a reader and a reviewer, I’m happy to look at anything. Why restrict yourself? You might miss out on something marvellous (though I always point out that “review” is not necessarily synonymous with “praise”). But I would have thought that everyone who reads the stuff already knows what these terms mean, even if they can’t provide rigid definitions, and could therefore slot any given book somewhere into the spectrum and make sense of it in its own terms.

JANE: I wish…   I’ve been on hour-long panels that do nothing but argue the point.   And when you get to the sub-sets, like “sword and sorcery” as opposed to “high fantasy” or “hard science fiction” vs. “space opera,” then it really gets hard.

Remember how back in October I wrote my Wandering about Jim and me doing some organizing of our garage and attic?

ALAN: Ah, yes! October 10th – 10/10/12, one of only twelve dates that you and I would write the same way. You saved a threadbare shirt and Jim saved Smokey the bear, as I recall.

JANE: That’s the one!  Well, one of the things I found was a big box full of my old short story manuscripts.  As I went through these, I found myself remembering how I had sent them out (and gotten a ton of rejections).  I now realize that having a better idea of what the sub-genre terms meant would have helped me a lot.

In today’s business climate, the author is often forced to do a lot of the marketing, even if she is working with a major publisher.  I’m still trying to figure out how to categorize my next novel for Tor.  It’s more SF than Fantasy, but it’s SF with a lot of things that would appeal to a fantasy reader, like intelligent animals, psionic powers, and…

But I get distracted.  Anyhow, the next point I’d like to explore with you is going to be complicated, so how about I hold it for next time?

How Do You Keep Going?

December 5, 2012

NaNoWriMo is over for another year.  Since we looked at it before it started (see WW 10-31-12, “Trick or Treat), it seemed like a good idea to return to the question of what goes into writing a book.

The Twisting Paths of Plotting

The Twisting Paths of Plotting

Over the course of NaNoWriMo, I touched bases with a few people I knew were participating.  Most admitted that keeping the story going – especially with the dawn of the holiday season making new demands – was turning out to be pretty demanding.  I’d even go so far as to say that, in a few cases at least, writing a considerable amount every day was turning out to be more of a chore than it had seemed when November had been new and full of promise.

One thing that came up was that, once the story was started, the writers often found themselves getting bogged down.    Matters of plot and characterization that had seemed obvious at the start no longer seemed so clear.

So, how too keep going once the novel is started, the main characters introduced, and that boffo opening written?    Here are a few tricks I use.

My first suggestion is more a matter of structuring your writing time than of stimulating creativity.  Stop writing in the middle of the scene, when you know exactly where you’re going.  It’s best to choose a dramatic point – fights or passionate conversations are both good.  If you’re worried that you’ll lose the momentum you’ve developed, then write yourself brief notes, rather like the following: [Firekeeper next disagrees; Derian comes back with timing issue; Firekeeper sees point; next, depart on  trip]

Second, if you find yourself bogged down in matters of plot, consider thinking about it this way.  You’re bogged down because there’s more than one possible “next.”   For example, you know your protagonist is going to end up  face-to-face with the antagonist.  From the start, you knew that your protagonist would win this first encounter.  So what’s the problem?

The problem is that, even if you know your protagonist is the victor in this particular confrontation, there are so many different types of victories – especially if the antagonist needs to continue to play a role in the story.  Here are a few possibilities I came up with right off the top of my head.

1) That protagonist wins but it’s a qualified victory.  Maybe she’s wounded.  Maybe complications spring up – perhaps with local law enforcement.

2) The protagonist wins, but in order to do so he had to pull out his “big guns” (which could be a spell or other device or even an ally, as easily as a weapon) earlier than he planned.  The antagonist escapes with this valuable information.  Especially if the protagonist counted on keeping that bit of information a secret, the protagonist may feel this is a mixed victory.

3) The protagonist wins.  The antagonist is dead or in prison.  However, a lieutenant now takes over and is worse than the original ever was.  Or the Bad Guy Gang decides to rescue the boss.  Or the boss turns out to be a real charmer and pretty soon local law enforcement is convinced they have the wrong person behind bars.

I’m sure you can think of other alternatives.  The point is, the reason you’re stuck is not because you know what happens next, but because you’re aware that there are consequences to any action. This is a situation is one that most new writers aren’t prepared for.  They figure knowing the general plot is enough.  If they outline, they may have confidently written something like: “First Encounter between Ace of Hearts and Black Spade.  Ace wins.”  They didn’t think hard enough about how Ace won and what that victory would mean to the larger story.

So a third option for when you find yourself getting bogged down once the book is underway is to toss that outline.  Outlines are meant to help you.  If you find yours becoming shackles on your creativity, then do some rethinking.  Try writing a new approach or two, then decide which of these new angles you like best and continue from there.

Related to this is a problem that most experienced writers are familiar with, but neo writers don’t believe is real until it happens to them.  This is when the characters hijack the book and start taking it in another direction.  Maybe you’d predicated a lot of the action on Character A being deeply in love with Character B.  Then Character A turns out to be indifferent to Character B, but actually a little interested in Character C.

Or maybe, as noted above, you planned on the first confrontation ending in victory for the protagonist.  Instead, when you start writing, the antagonist keeps coming up with all these great ways for escaping the protagonist’s carefully laid plans.  Yeah, you can force the plot to go as you originally intended, but you might end up with a much stronger book if you find out where this side road takes you.  Yes.  That road is possibly a dead end, but even that investigation will teach you something about your characters and how they react to adversity.

The strangest thing of all is that, very often, once you’ve solved your problem and the plot is moving along nicely once more, the solution seems so obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it from the start.  Then, if you’re like some writers I know, you begin to wonder if what you have come up with is too dumb or too obvious.  Trust yourself.  It probably isn’t.

Right now I’m running a role playing game that’s basically an original story.  When I set up my gaming notes, I commented to Jim, “Gee, I hope this isn’t going to be too direct and too boring for you all.”  Well, it hasn’t turned out that way.  Usually, as we are cleaning up after a session, Jim looks at me and grins, “Didn’t you say you were worried this would be too direct and too boring?  Let me reassure you…  It’s not!”

So my last piece of advice is this.  Even when you’re in doubt, keep writing.  Feel free to go in new directions, but don’t throw away everything you’ve done to that point  because you’re momentarily stuck.  Keep going.  You won’t know how well – or how poorly – the story has turned out until you’re finished.

I’m always interested in learning the ways people get through the complications of developing the plot and characters when writing a book.  If you have any tricks to share, I’d love to hear them.